New Internationalist

Chinese Puzzle

Issue 092

POPULATION

No-one here seems to know or care what it will be like to live in a society without brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or cousins.’ So wrote Bryan Johnson, Peking correspondent of the Toronto Globe and Mail in a recent article on the, one child per family’ policy now being promoted in the world’s largest nation. ‘Couples are being forced by the million’, the story continued, ‘to sign ‘one-child’ pledges and thousands of women may have been forcibly sterilised by over­zealous officials’. In recent months, a spate of such stories has filtered out of Peking. But as is usually the case with China-watching, such vivid and colourful accounts are only glimpses through a glass darkly. Just published in Tokyo are the findings of a study tour to China led by the Chairman of Japan’s largest family planning organisation, Kazutoshi Yamaji. The report makes it easier to piece the picture together.

The object of China’s eight-month old ‘one child’ policy is clear enough: China wants to reach zero population growth by the end of this century. To achieve that ambitious target, Family Planning Committees have been hastily set up in all the Production Units which permeate China’s 40,000 People’s Communes and form the nervous system through which Peking’s policies are communicated to China’s 950 million people.

If a Chinese couple of child-bearing age makes a written promise to the Family Planning Committee that they will only have one child, then they are given an extra $3.40 a month ‘child allowance’ until the child is fourteen. This is the equivalent of a 10 per cent wage increase. The child who is the off­spring of this pact is also given priority when it comes to school-entrance, job applications and private land-buying. In addition, the parents of one-child families will eventually receive a retirement pension 10 per cent higher than parents imprudent enough to have more than one child.

But if the carrot is here can the stick be far behind? A man and wife who break the promise and have a second child have to pay back all the money received under the one-child arrangement. And a couple who indulge in three children will find 10 per cent less in their pay-packets from then on.

Privately, senior Chinese officials admit that ‘one child per family’ is only a slogan and that they expect average family size to stabilise at 1.5 children. But they also insist that the government is pursuing the one-child policy through public understanding, not compulsion. The smaller pay-packet for those who don’t understand is presumably a visual aid in this educational process.

All of this seems to represent a ‘U’-turn in a country which for many years denounced population control in the Third World as a neo-Malthusian plot against the poor and wouldn’t even admit to having a population policy of its own. But they don’t see it like that in Peking.

China now feels itself justified in pushing for smaller families because health, incomes and social security have been put before condoms, loops and pills. Land has been redistributed and mal­nutrition all but wiped out; agriculture has been mechanised and dependence on child-labour reduced; and every Chinese is now entitled to a pension amounting to 70 per cent of his or her wage. Family planning can now be pursued in the interests of the nation and of generations to come without conflicting with the interests of Chinese couples today.

But behind the sudden stringency of the ‘one child’ policy is the fact that Chinese leaders see trouble looming up. With over 20 per cent of the world’s people and only seven per cent of the world’s arable land, expanded food production is becoming increasingly hard to wring from the soil. And with six per cent of China’s children already without schools to go to and unemployment beginning to nag at the edges of the economy, China is feeling the population pinch.

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